Pete Rouse is no stranger to tough battles as Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle’s (D-S.D.) top aide. He was part of the team that catapulted Daschle into his leadership post in 1994 and four years later helped negotiate the terms of former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial.
In recent years, he has had to navigate a flip-flopping Senate majority, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and an envelope full of anthrax opened in Daschle’s office that exposed more than a dozen staffers to the potentially deadly spores.
Now, Rouse is engaged in one of his most personal political battles, working to re-elect Daschle — the Republican Party’s No. 2 target in November, behind only the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.).
“I am absolutely convinced they have a strategy that they think is a winning strategy,” Rouse said of the campaign of Daschle’s challenger, former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.). “I don’t think it is a winning strategy and on Nov. 2, I think it will be a very satisfying day for Tom Daschle and everybody that works here.”
For Rouse, the re-election campaign is just one component of a complex political operation he manages, known inside the Beltway as “Daschle Inc.” He also oversees the South Dakotan’s leadership and constituent offices, acts as a troubleshooter for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and serves as an emissary to K Street.
“My basic role here is to make sure everything stays on track and every once in a while help out with a little perspective here and there and on the controversial issues that are not just political in South Dakota, but matters of principle,” Rouse said.
But unlike many senior aides on Capitol Hill, Rouse has a gift for delegating responsibility, which has helped Daschle attract top-flight strategists throughout his 10 years as the Senate Democratic leader.
“A huge part of the culture in that office is not promoting yourself, but promoting your colleagues’ good work, and working very much in consensus and team building,” said Anita Dunn, a longtime political adviser to Daschle who works closely with Rouse.
When it comes to leadership staff-level discussions between parties, Rouse usually defers to a clutch of Daschle’s most trusted policy advisers. But that doesn’t mean Rouse was not in constant contact with Republican leadership aides, who have welcomed Rouse’s willingness to find solutions on pressing matters when needed.
“Pete was very straightforward with me,” said Dave Hoppe, the former chief of staff to then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). “I think it was helpful that we could always call each other.
“He is a very decent, good person and if he wasn’t so wrong on policy stuff, he would be great,” added Hoppe, who is now vice chairman of Quinn Gillespie & Associates.
Rouse is more than a staffer to Daschle. He has known the Minority Leader since 1973, when both men worked side-by-side as legislative assistants to former Sen. James Abourezk (D-S.D.).
“We actually sat next to each other for two years and then I went over to the House and took separate paths for a while,” Rouse said. “I came back when he ran for the Senate.”
Even though Rouse is almost unquestionably the most powerful Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill, he prefers to keep a low profile and moves easily through Capitol Hill hallways with little interference. But don’t expect him to be smiling all the time.
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